So after the 10 books project was over, I mentioned that I would be writing up my findings from that project in a scholarly article I was hoping to publish in my field of study, library and information sciences. One article idea actually turned into two, including one that takes a closer look at creative writing pedagogy in addition to how-to books, which I’m hoping to eventually send to a journal in the writing studies field. But I got far enough on the one for the library and information science field that I decided to share it with two mentors who often read my work and give feedback before I submit it to a journal of peer review and (hopefully) publication.
In this case, one of my reviewers felt that the article I’d written was lacking and in particular that I’d been (in her words) screwed by my choice of books to study. She thought maybe looking into more recent books on creative writing might help resolve this issue since I’d named the age of the books under study as one of the limitations but I’d already started reading some newer books and hadn’t found anything different. They rarely, if ever, talked about research and when they did it was only in passing reference.
At first glance, this seems like a big problem for what I’m trying to do. Originally, I set out to try to understand the role that research plays in the creative writing process by reading 10 popular books on writing. I found that almost none of them talk about research, at least in the form I expected to find. So basically I found nothing that helps me meet the stated goal of the research and I can understand why, in my reviewer’s eyes, this seemed like a failure.
Ironically, the reason why this feedback was so important is because I hadn’t realized that this was the case. To my mentor, it looked like I had gone in search of something and found nothing. To me, I thought I’d found something that was actually rather significant and my failure was perhaps at least in part in not communicating the significance of what I found. I think the other failure was communicating why librarians like me should care about the gap I found or what, if anything, they need to do about it.
So I’m going to take a little space here to establish my thinking about these issues. Not because I think my mentor was wrong—like I said, it’s important for me to know that these connections are not clear and I think she was very right to make me aware of this, especially since potential peer reviewers might have the same questions. But because I need to do some thinking out loud about why I think this study is still important even though it might look like I didn’t have much in the way of findings.
I picked Plot & Structure as the next item on my reading list because after revisiting the list of popular creative writing books on Goodreads, I spotted it in the top ten. It hadn’t been there when I started the original 10 books project, but it’s interesting to see the ways in which that list fluctuates over time so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.
I was just starting out in libraries around the time that Eat, Pray, Love was the big thing everyone was reading in their book clubs. I remember picking up a copy of the book out of curiosity and also watching the movie but my reading amnesia is such that the only thing I remember from either version is the Eddie Vedder song “Better Days.”
I must have liked the book well enough though because I remember when Big Magic first came out, I immediately put it on reserve. I also remember reading the first fifty pages or so and thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t for me.” And that was before I got to the comment that implies a certain lack of glamor in being a writer asked to speak about libraries as part of a panel. Hmph.
But in my quest to expand my readings on creative writing and creativity in general, I happened to catch sight of this book on the library shelf (it’s hard to miss: the colors on the cover are very bright) and on a whim decided to pick it up again. This time I got all the way through it and I’m still pretty sure the book isn’t for me but I was interested to find that in between all the talk about creativity as a magical thing, there was also some talk about research.
About a year ago, my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” was published in College & Research Libraries. This article represented something of a turning point for my research and writing, first because it drew inspiration from outside the library and information science field and second because it was a much bigger swing than what I’d previously written. But the big ideas in this article have led me down a path of discovery that has made me more excited about research and writing than I was before. And it’s led to some great conversations. So I’m really glad I took that big swing.
I wanted to take some space now to reflect on what taking that swing was like in part as a way to encourage others to do the same with their own ideas.
Now that the 10 books project is over, I’m ready to start venturing beyond that particular list to start looking at a wider range of books on writing, storytelling, and creativity to see what, if anything, they have to say about the role of research in the creative process. Today it’s Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig.
I’ve been a fan of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog for quite a while now and, in fact, some of the writing-related posts on there by both Wendig and some of his guest authors are a big part of what inspired the original 10 books project and my current research path. So when I saw that he’d published (another) book about writing, I was really excited.
But it actually took me a while to read Damn Fine Story partly because for some reason none of the libraries in my library system had a copy (for shame!) and that’s how I usually get my books. In the end, if I’d gotten this book from the library, I probably would have bought a copy anyway after reading it.
In trying to understand the role of research in creative writing, I’ve taken something of a detour into research on creative writing pedagogy and the history of English as an academic subject. This information is helping me understand the larger context of how creative writing is taught and why conversations about the role of research may not be part of those teachings.
Anyway, one of the first books I found on the subject was Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, a collection of critical essays edited by Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice that was published in 2007. A lot of the essays, particularly ones that come early in the book, are fascinating explorations of why creative writing is taught the way it is and why, in the authors’ opinions, that needs to change. It reminded me a lot of conversations I’ve seen in the library and information science field about how information literacy is taught.
Toward the back of the book is an essay by Wendy Bishop (to whom the book is also dedicated) and Stephen Armstrong called “Box Office Poison: The Influence of Writers in Film on Writers (in Graduate Programs)” which, as the title suggests, is an analysis of how the act of writing is portrayed in cinema.
Now that the 10 books project is over, I’m ready to start venturing beyond that particular list to start looking at a wider range of books on writing, storytelling, and creativity to see what, if anything, they have to say about the role of research in the creative process. Today I’m starting with Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.
What seems obvious from these readings is that the creative writing workshop is the most common model for teaching creative writing even though there seem to be a lot of questions about how useful it is.
One of the best fictional illustrations I’ve ever seen of the creative writing workshop experience was in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie Wonder Boys (based on the book by Michael Chabon) where the students in the class tear apart Tobey Maguire’s work while he sits there, silenced by the gag rule and either stone-faced or zoned out. Then another student, seeing the way he’s being attacked, chimes in with more positive/constructive feedback to save him. The students in the class hate their classmate’s work largely because they don’t understand it and the writer in question is unable to explain his thinking to them, even if he wanted to (though in this case, it seems unlikely he’d want to, given the nature of the character).
You could argue about whether this is a realistic representation of the workshop environment, but it certainly captures what it feels like to be in that environment, at least based on my memories of my own undergraduate workshop days, particularly a comment element called the “gag rule.”